(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

FAIRY DREAMS: Six acrobatic, aerialist fairies guard the bower of Titania (Ellen McLaughlin), the fairy queen, to the musical accompaniment of GrooveLily's drummer Gene Lewin in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at McCarter's Matthews Theatre through April 9.

Aerialist Fairies, GrooveLily Tunes, Mischief Galore Bring Visual, Musical Delights to Shakespeare's Dream

Donald Gilpin

But we are spirits of another sort," fairy king Oberon counsels Puck as they hurry to complete their work of enchantments and transformations. "Another sort" indeed, especially if you are thinking perhaps of Tinker Belle or traditional Midsummer Night's Dream fairies. The six tall, athletic and scantily clad, all-male fairies, who — along with Oberon, Titania and Puck — populate the forest outside Athens in Tina Landau's modernistic, musical, inventive production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, are acrobatic aerialists, taking full advantage of the numerous "trees" in Louisa Thompson's dazzling, metallic set design.

Constantly climbing and swinging, up to twenty feet above the stage, on the upstage scaffolding, these fairies, scantily clad in black briefs and skull caps, embody the freedom and the danger, the physicality and sensuality of nature and the natural. As Puck leads the wayward lovers "up and down, up and down," in act three before finally sorting out their romantic dilemmas, the fairies join in the fun by bouncing from floor to ceiling on bungee cords.

No, this might not be your grandmother's vision of Shakespeare's most beloved comedy. Set, costuming, staging and the pervasive music by the folk-pop-rock trio GrooveLily impart a strong sense of freshness, surprise, and modernity to this well known comedy. Traditionalists and other skeptics will have their complaints with some of the multiple innovations cooked up here by Ms. Landau, her imaginative design team and her talented ensemble of performers, but these artists show great respect for Shakespeare's masterpiece and deliver uncompromisingly the rich essentials of the different worlds and the magical language of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The seasoned actors are superb in communicating clearly the complexities of the play's diverse poetry and prose.

Puck (Guy Adkins) appropriately leads the way here. As Oberon's factotum, Puck employs powers of enchantment to direct the behaviors of many of the characters who enter the forest. This mischievous spirit of imagination, with long bleached blond hair and dressed only in red briefs and boots with bright red shoe laces, adds new dimensions to the notion of impish sprite.

With a particular affinity for surprising entrances and exits, rapid, athletic movement and colorful sartorial accoutrements, he appears with a different bright red clothing item on each entrance — a boa, a scarf, a bowler hat, a stylish jacket, and a tutu. Frequently commenting on the action ("Lord, what fools these mortals be!"), Mr. Adkins' Puck is the master of ceremonies here. He develops a close rapport with the audience, and, though we're constantly a bit fearful of what he might do next, he creates a delightfully warm and humorous presence.

Puck seems to embody the spirit of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is reflected also in the conflicting impulses of Theseus' court v. the forest, law v. freedom, reason v. imagination and dreams, the conscious v. the unconscious, order and light v. chaos and darkness.

Ms. Landau's production succeeds admirably in bringing to life the striking contrasts in the world of Shakespeare's Dream and in delineating vividly the four different plot strands that interweave here. Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1595-96 when he was in his early 30s, about the same time he wrote Romeo and Juliet, which explores in a tragic vein many of the same plot elements that make up this comedy.

A Midsummer Night's Dream opens in the court of Duke Theseus (Jay Goede). Actually this production opens with GrooveLily and the suggestion that this vibrant trio — Valerie Vigoda on electric violin, Gene Lewin on drums and Brendan Milburn on keyboard — may be dreaming the whole Dream, but the Duke's palace soon slides into place.

Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' will play at McCarter's Matthews Theatre through April 9, then will move to Papermill Playhouse in Millburn. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for information.

All is order and formality, a stark bright white, with characters in white coats, attendants in white wigs and white masks, 23 sconces on the long back wall and Titania (Ellen McLaughlin) unhappily trying on her gown for her impending nuptials with the Duke.

Suddenly, the four young lovers and one angry father loudly disrupt the scene, as Egeus (Stephen Payne) demands Theseus' support in controlling his daughter Hermia (Stacey Sargeant), who wants to marry Lysander (James Martinez) in defiance of her father's wishes that she marry Demetrius (Will Fowler), whom Helena (Brenda Withers) ardently adores. Lysander and Hermia decide to escape from Athens to marry secretly in the forest, Demetrius pursues Hermia, and Helena pursues Demetrius — none suspecting the trials and transformations that will befall them in the world of nature and the fairies.

How many soap operas this has provided the material for is beyond calculation, but these four performers play their roles with conviction, skill, and energy. The results — Ms. Withers' Helena is especially affecting — are highly enjoyable.

Meanwhile, the third plot, featuring the workmen of Athens — here transformed into a high-tech janitorial service complete with garbage bags and cans, power vacuum cleaner, welding mask — also follows the classic pattern of movement from Athens to the forest for escape, enlightenment, new perspectives, and self-knowledge, then back to Athens for resolution and restoration of order.

Led by a seedy, flask-toting Peter Quince (Mr. Payne), this entertaining crew, preparing to perform "Pyramus and Thisbe" at the Duke's wedding, features Lea DeLaria as Bottom, Demond Green as Flute, and the three GrooveLily musicians rapidly changing in and out of costume to fill the bill as Snout, Starveling and Snug. This is Shakespeare's opportunity to comment on all the ham actors and amateurish theatrical productions of his time, as "bully" Bottom, full of enthusiasm and confidence nobly forges ahead to rehearse and perform their play "most obscenely and courageously."

In the wrong hands, the mechanicals sections of the play, especially the lengthy, hapless performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe" in the final scene, can become tedious, but this group has the comic timing down perfectly and a spirited dose of music to go with Ms. DeLaria's vocal talents (and even an Elvis impersonation) to effectively bring across this hilarious subplot. Ms. DeLaria's Bottom is endearing, ridiculous and at the same time completely convincing and sympathetic, in all his bizarre transformations and mishaps throughout the play.

The fourth plot strand, the marital battle in the forest fairyland between Oberon and Titania, played, as Shakespeare no doubt intended, by the same actors who play Theseus and Hippolyta is handled with authority, dramatic intensity and humor by Mr. Goede and Ms. McLaughlin. The agile and ominous expert flying fairy band includes Karl Christian, Jesse Nager, Ryan Overberg, Reginald Holden Jennings, Adam Lobato and Christopher Mai.

Ms. Landau and her design team have created here a feast of sight and sound, "a court, a forest, a dreamscape," as the program describes it, to complement Shakespeare's feast of words. Scott Zielinski's lighting accentuates the contrasting elements of court and forest and helps Ms. Thompson's set to bring out the dark menace of the enchanted forest along with its sensuous warmth, its sunny spots of greenery and blooming flowers. Costumes by Michael Krass, full of whimsy, imagination, and creativity, are a source of constant surprise and an important factor in delineating character and mood here.

The appealing music by GrooveLily includes original songs, underscoring for much of the action, and the enhancement of a number of Shakespeare's lyrics in the play. As Ms. Landau, in an interview, points out, "The flavor of what GrooveLily does is 'very Midsummer' to me: quirky, playful, twisted — so fanciful, but also dark at times. In terms of tone GrooveLily and Midsummer are kindred spirits."

Though the musicians and the extra music seem a bit obtrusive at times, stretching the show to almost three hours and occasionally distracting from the plot, they provide many highlights that are in perfect harmony with Shakespeare's Dream. A transformed Demetrius serenading Helena and a rousing finale to the first act (Shakespeare's third act), "All will be well," come immediately to mind.

Unlike McCarter's last venture into the Shakespearean canon, with a cold, controversial, post-modern rendition of Hamlet directed by Daniel Fish at the Berlind Theatre last spring, this production is loaded with warmth and appeal for audiences of all ages. Both thought-provoking productions were designed to challenge and surprise, but while Mr. Fish's Hamlet seemed often to be defying the audience and Shakespeare's text too, almost all the rich creativity of Ms. Landau's production helps to bring forth the wonders that already lie within the lines of the miraculous 410-year-old Midsummer Night's Dream.

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